Democratic Counter-revolution

Phil Hearse

Washington’s plans for the political reconstruction of the Middle East are now clear. They involve, says Phil Hearse, removing the governments of Syria and Iran and the political defeat and humiliation of the Palestinians, as well as a permanent US military presence in Iraq. ‘Democracy’ is a key theme of this political-military campaign.

George Bush’s March 4 demand that all Syrian troops leave Lebanon, capitalising on a growing demand from the Lebanese people themselves, is part of the reactionary offensive on the theme of ‘democracy’ which is now a central part of US foreign policy. This prospectus was announced in Bush’s January inauguration speech; its aim is simply to maximise the installation of pro-US, neoliberal, governments around the word, while at the same time reaping the propaganda victory of being seen to stand for ‘democracy’ and popular will.

The last ‘democratic counter-revolution’ came just two months ago, when the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ swept the western part of Ukraine, installing Viktor Yushchenko as the new prime minister and kicking out Viktor Yanukovich. In the Ukraine and around the world this was hailed as the victory of democracy against the post-Soviet autocrats, the corrupt old guard.

Ukraine example

Yushchenko’s campaign was hugely subsidised by the United States and some European countries using domestic front organisations. The team around him was just as much composed of re-cycled bureaucrats from the Soviet era as was Yanukovich’s government; the difference between them was that Yushchenko stood for a pro-Western policy, taking the Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence. Both camps in Ukraine stood for neoliberal economic reform, although Yanukovich will probably speed this process.

During the post-election crisis, when Yushchenko supporters massed outside the parliament building in Kiev, the US – in the form of then Secretary of State Colin Powell – openly intervened in the crisis with demands for new elections.

The Ukraine operation, following a similarly successful campaign in Byelorus, reprises an old strategy of trying to seize the leadership of legitimate (and inevitable) movements against dictatorship and for democracy. In each case such campaigns try to marginalise popular movements and the left by making the choice appear to be simply that of defending the old dictatorship, or accepting pro-American ‘democracy’.

Syrian troops

The demand in the Lebanon for the removal of Syrian troops is hugely popular right across the different ethnic and confessional divides. Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, when the Arab nationalist and Palestine Liberation Organisation fighters were on the verge of finally defeating the Christian Maronite militias. Their intervention ensured the right-wing Maronites were not defeated, and that a radical Arab nationalist force did not dominate Lebanon

Through its position in Lebanon, as the force which exercises a controlling influence on politics and the economy, Syria gains huge political and economic advantages, as well as making sure that radical or fundamentalist forces in Lebanon do not interfere in internal Syrian politics. By being in Lebanon, the reactionary Syrian dictatorship has played to the gallery of Arab public opinion, posing itself as a ‘front line’ state in the struggle against Israel, and getting huge subsidies from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

However when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, with the strategic aim of throwing the PLO armed forces out of the country, Syrian troops sat on their hands and did not intervene, even when Beirut was bombarded.

The Bush team has seized on the growing demand for real Lebanese independence and self-determination, which conveniently kills several birds with one stone. First, the withdrawal of Syrian troops is seen as a direct blow to Hizbollah, the Shi’ite fundamentalist movement in Lebanon. Hizbollah, which maintains a large and extremely well-armed militia, is financed and protected by Syria, and has been aided in the past by Iran.

Although Hizbollah activity along the border with Israel has been at a low ebb, both Washington and Tel Aviv suspect the movement of stockpiling weapons and biding its time before opening up a new offensive across the border, perhaps when the current Israel-PLO peace process begins to go into crisis.

More important than striking a blow at Hizbollah, however, is the Bush team’s plan for regime change in Syria itself, overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Assad. That regime is a degenerate remnant of post-second world war Arab nationalism, and one that maintains itself in power through the army and extremely brutal security police. Nonetheless being anti-Israel and giving help to anti-Israel movements that Washington calls terrorist is a key part of the political identity of the regime, without which all remain popular support would evaporate.

US plans

Washington’s plan for the whole region is now clear. It can be summarised as a) broker a peace deal with the Palestinians, which involves minimal concessions by the Sharon government and a historic defeat for Palestinian nationalism b) stabilise a ‘democratic’ government in Iraq which will not actively oppose a permanent US military presence or a decisive US role in the economy c) overthrow the governments in Syria and Iraq, and replace them with pro-Western ‘democratic’ governments.

For the moment the campaign against Iran revolves around the accusation that the country is developing nuclear weapons. Strong rumours persist of US Special Forces entering the country to spy out nuclear targets for a possible US or Israeli military attack. But it is very doubtful that the US has decided on regime change in Syria or Iran by military means. A political campaign on democracy, capable of linking up with economic elites and popular opposition to authoritarian rule, is a much less problematic solution -–if it can be achieved. Of course, as the US campaign develops, military action against Tehran and Damascus remains a possibility if all else fails.

But developments in Iraq are actually at the centre of this whole process. If the insurgency persists and a pro-US government cannot be stabilised, the situation in the whole region will be much less amenable to US domination.

The mass turnout for the January 30 Iraq elections provides a short-term boost for the Bush regime internationally, but from within Iraq the situation is much less clear. The Shi’ite Iraqi United Alliance, which won easily the largest share of the vote, did so on the basis of promising to get the United States out. In addition to the damage done to the credibility of the poll by the mass boycott in Sunni areas, only 14% voted for Allawi, the current prime minister and Washington’s favourite. All the other pro-US forces suffered worse defeats.

The key Shi’ite leader in the country Ali al-Sistani may well try to manoeuvre with the US and give tacit consent to continued American presence, in exchange for clerical dominance over ‘civil society’. It is extremely doubtful whether this can work; opposition to the US presence is overwhelming. That is the irresolvable contradiction that the US occupation faces, and why the insurgency will continue.

Syrian regime vulnerable

The intractable US position in Iraq does not mean that it cannot be successful in Lebanon and Syria itself. Two factors are key here. Despite the reliance of the regime on the army and security apparatus, it is widely rumoured that the political elite is split over whether to finish off all the old trappings of Arab nationalism, and go boldly forward to take their place in the community of neoliberal nations. Such an outcome would in all likelihood appeal to Syria’s capitalist class, eager for openings to the world market and an influx of foreign capital as a way out of permanent economic crisis.

Second, there have been recent signs that the regime is losing its political grip. During the last Iraq war there were ‘unofficial’ demonstrations against the US attack, something unheard of for more than 30 years, when all public political expressions had to be approved by the regime.

In September 2000, 99 members of Syria's intelligentsia - writers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, film-makers - published a letter in the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat declaring a kind of war on the Government. Called Charter 99, it demanded an end to the 1963 state of emergency, the release of political prisoners, the return of political exiles, freedom of the press and the right to hold public meetings.

Two months later, Assad freed about six hundred political prisoners and closed Damascus's notorious Mezzeh prison, where political dissidents have been tortured ever since it was built by the French. (The much harsher Tadmor prison in the eastern desert is still in use.)

A month later, the Government issued a licence for al-Domari (the 'Lamplighter'), the country's only privately owned newspaper. Meanwhile, more opposition networks were forming, and more declarations were being issued. Some of their pamphlets circulated as samizdat in universities and schools. In 2003, 287 Syrian citizens published an appeal to Bashar in the Lebanese daily as-Safir. The petition warned that Syria faced two enemies, Israel and the United States, and was too weak to defend itself against either. While making the usual demand for an end to martial law and the release of political prisoners, it also argued for something more fundamental. 'The authorities have no remedy for our ills,' the petition stated. 'There is a real cure, which is national reform.'

This demand for national reform faces the typical dilemma that all the movements against authoritarian regimes have faced in the last 20 years. Either the US and other western countries will support and arm authoritarian regimes – Colombia, Egypt, El Salvador, Uzbekistan – or it will support the demand for democracy and try to overwhelm and subvert the democratic movement.

The dilemma facing progressive forces in countries like Lebanon Syria is exactly the same as that faced in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe during the fall of Stalinism – how, in an unfavourable relationship of world forces, to carve out an independent and autonomous political space which will remain hostile to imperialism while fighting for democracy.

Only through rebuilding the workers movement and the left internationally can this dilemma be overcome.